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National Study Launched on Self-Policing of "Irresponsible Science"

Survey of 12,000 scientific researchers to explore whether colleagues' early intervention can help prevent bad science

BOSTON (November 1, 2005) — As high-profile cases of published "irresponsible science" continue to be discovered, a major national study is underway to see if a scientific researcher's colleagues may be able to work quietly behind the scenes, early in a scientific study, to help prevent bad science from moving forward.

Gerald Koocher, PhD, dean of the Simmons School of Health Sciences in Boston, is embarking on a two -year project with colleagues, surveying 12,000 scientific researchers nationwide, to study "Collegial Defense Against Irresponsible Science." The study is funded by the National Institutes of Health Office of Research Integrity, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Koocher will carry out the study with co-investigators Drs. Patricia Keith-Spiegel and Joan Sieber.

The study's hypothesis is that scientific researchers who notice deliberate or inadvertent "bad science" being practiced by a colleague during the course of their colleague's research, might intervene quietly and effectively early in the process if they get the proper training and tools.

"The goal is to try to get the field to begin self-policing in a way that's never been done before," says Koocher. "Colleagues speaking to their colleagues is the frontline of defense against irresponsible science."

While "irresponsible" or "bad" science includes deliberate fraudulent activity by researchers, study investigators say it also includes such practices as careless or irresponsible work habits, incompetent research design and methodology, personal self biases, lax supervision or poor training.

"It is not uncommon for scientists to confide they know of scientific misconduct by their peers," says Koocher, "yet few cases are ultimately reported. "Anecdotes show that many aware researchers are caught off-guard, and don't know at what point they should act, or how. Little is known about successful, gentle, behind-the-scenes collegial intervention that potentially minimizes irresponsible research."

In the first part of the study, Koocher and colleagues will administer two online, confidential, anonymous surveys to a random sampling of more than 12,000 biomedical and social-behavioral researchers around the nation who receive NIH funding for research. The surveys will be administered through a privately managed web site, with a non-identifiable code for each participant. Gender will be the only identifiable personal attribute.

Respondents will be asked about any experiences they may have had dealing with several forms of "bad science" committed by their peer colleagues or research assistants. Comparisons will analyze such things as how the colleague learned of the poor practices, what differentiated good from poor outcomes, and why some colleagues decided not to intervene.

Confidential follow-up telephone sessions will be solicited from some survey respondents, asking them to indicate whether they have observed any of five specific forms of "irresponsible science" among their colleagues, and if so, what they did and how the matter was resolved.

Based on survey and interview findings, study investigators will compile a guide to intervention that will include disguised cases and role-playing scenarios for training purposes, "best practices" for early intervention, and discussion questions designed to evoke thoughtful analysis and problem-solving. The guide also will be offered on a public web page and as a booklet. The Simmons School of Nursing and Health Sciences is at www.simmons.edu/snhs/.

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